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Sex is not the opposite of feminism

Do we need to say this? Really?

An article went up on IndyVoices today that discussed feminists “dancing on the grave of NUTS magazine” and lamented that “by outlawing lads’ mags we risk turning women’s sex into a taboo.”

It’s not the only thing I’ve seen that wants to pit Feminism against Sex in some imaginary battle of opposites. I’ve seen some bloggers saying that sex positivity is being pushed in people’s faces and that there’s pressure on anyone who writes about feminism to be simultaneously politically angry and coquettishly sexual. This is often taken to mean that if one wants to be a proper feminist – you know, one of the one’s who is really serious about it rather than one of the ones who just wears feminism the way they’d accessorize with a lovely new scarf – then one has to avoid being sexual.

Pro-sex doesn’t mean pro-the current sexual norm

The reason the IndyVoices article is a steaming pile of horseshit is that it assumes there is only one kind of sexuality: the kind that’s packaged by publications such as NUTS magazine, page 3, and anything that involves a lady showing her cleavage to get one over on weak men who are hampered by erections.

To say that this is a narrow view of sexuality is to drastically undersell the problem. Of all possible sexual worlds, this is a very very small one in a multiverse teeming with infinite possibilities.

So, you can be against this particular portrayal of women and still be pro-sex.

Being a feminist does not mean ignoring male sexual pleasure

Some men like sex. Some women like sex. It is not inherently anti-feminist to be a woman who enjoys pleasuring men, just as it isn’t anti-feminist to be a woman who’d rather not do that, thank you very much.

If you want to sign up to be a feminist (I’ve got a clipboard and a list of names here somewhere – every sign-up gets a free “YAY FEMINISM” badge), you don’t have to push back against anything that might make an individual man happy. You just have to want men and women to be equal. That means Cosmo and Glamour articles on ‘how to please your man in bed’, the ones mentioned in the IndyVoices piece, are not necessarily ‘anti-feminist’.

I know, I am sticking up for Cosmo – shock. That is literally how bad things have got.

What is anti-feminist is when these articles frame their version of sexuality as the only possible one. If these magazines are the dominant things that shape the discourse, with no acknowledgement that – hey! People are basically all individuals and the chances are that our generic sex tips won’t work on everyone! And some people don’t actually want to have this kind of sex anyway! – that’s when things are fucked. The problem isn’t that these articles exist, the problem is that they tell us a very specific story about how we all should be.

So: wanting sexual pleasure – to give it and to get it – is not anti-feminist. What is anti-feminist is claiming that everyone must give it and get it in exactly the same way.

Anti-page-3 doesn’t necessarily mean anti-women

The No More Page 3 campaign has taken a lot of stick. But it has taken a lot of stick for a pretty good reason: it comes across as pretty anti-women. Like, really. Although they are fighting against sexual norms that paint women as interesting baubles for men to wank over (and I am totally down with smashing that), some of the campaign rhetoric involves making women feel bad for displaying their bodies, and that’s not cool.

Going back to point 1 – there are many different types of sexuality. And Page 3 caters to one very specific type. In my feminist, pro-sex Utopia, there will be things that cater to this type of sexuality: there will be women who earn money by getting their tits out for lads who wank to them, and no one will hate on any of the participants in this happy exchange. However, it will all be happening in an environment that is very different to the one we have now: an environment in which this type of sexuality is merely one among many, one which is not the dominant face of ‘sex’ as society understands it, and which no one feels pressured to participate in or look at if they don’t want to, because we will all accept that this is not the only way.

Feminism is about not telling women what they should be. Or what they should not be. 

Pro-sex doesn’t mean pro-‘pushing your sexual desires onto other people’

This one’s the kicker, and it’s this view I’ve seen fairly frequently elsewhere. I’ve read articles and blogs by people I admire saying that they feel pressured to be overtly sexual in order to “keep up with the Joneses” of popular ‘sex-positive’ feminism. It’s the other side of the coin from the IndyVoices article.

In IV, the author claims that ‘feminists’ are in danger of turning ‘women’s sex’ into a taboo. I’ve heard other bloggers claim that – on the contrary – women who do not want to openly discuss their sex lives are made to feel like renegades and outcasts while the rest of us frolic in an online orgy of self-congratulatory masturbation.

I don’t think anyone should be made to feel like this. Sex positivity is not about all getting our tits out and smearing chocolate on each other. It’s not about wanking on buses, or making everyone tell us the intimate details of their sexual fantasies. It’s about accepting that everyone has different desires: I want to live in a world where I can openly enjoy sex, and talk about everything that I (and other people) do to my body that gives me pleasure. Other people might want to live in a world where they can enjoy sex very privately, or not do it at all, or sort of enjoy it sometimes but not shout about it from the rooftops.

Guess what? These people can all coexist happily! The reason I set up this blog is so that people like me who enjoy the kind of sex that I do can come and talk about it and we can swap stories with each other. Also, if I’m honest, because I like to boast and my mates are probably sick of me talking about this shit in the pub after four gin and tonics. However, I do not print it out and wave it in the faces of passing strangers, because not all of them will be down with it.

So, while I love talking about sex, I realise that there are many who would rather not talk about it, do it, or have it shoved in their faces. In a genuinely sex-positive world, all of us can live happily and equally no matter how much sex we want, what kind of sex we want, or whether we want it at all.

Feminism is sex-positive, but not sex-compulsory

To my mind, feminism and sex-positivity go hand in hand. However, ‘sex-positivity’ doesn’t just mean mourning the loss of NUTS magazine and insisting that Page 3 is totally fine – that’s being ‘positive’ about just one aspect of sexuality, and failing to acknowledge the huge problems with the fact that this type of sexuality dominates our discourse in a way that is often misogynist.

I think sex-positivity is about more than just shouting “YAY SEX” and fucking whoever I like. It’s about more than just what porn I do or don’t watch, or whether I buy sex toys. It’s not about whether I’ll flash my tits to get into a nightclub and call it empowering. To me, being sex-positive is about celebrating the diversity of human sexual experience. And with such a diversity, we are always bound to disagree. I just wish we could have those disagreements without having to pretend that sex is the opposite of feminism.

I appreciate there are problems to tackle, and I am happy to navigate the ethical path of my sexual desire and my feminist principles. But I will do that, because feminism and sex are not mutually exclusive. It’s a complicated relationship, but a close one, and ultimately I choose both.

22 Comments

  • This is why I adore your blog. The ranty posts are as good (maybe even better) than the filthy ones.

    We should make those ‘YAY FEMINISM’ badges, by the way.

  • TommyOD says:

    Excellent post :) I couldn’t agree more.

  • Fiddy says:

    Y’know, most of the reason I subbed is for these rants. They’re always so interesting to read.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Cheers Fiddy! Glad you enjoy them =) I get people sometimes telling me that I should stop with the rants and focus on pure filth, so it’s tricky. I try to balance it out and have a mix of both. Besides, if I didn’t get to do the rants, I doubt I would enjoy blogging as much!

  • hip_priest says:

    Good, this. I heartily agree.

    I tend not to get too involved in feminist debate, particularly of the intersectionalist variety – given I’m white, male and straight. I think it’s alright to contribute, but men have this terrible habit of hijacking conversations as if they know more (‘mansplaining’, right?). And even though I’m conscious of this, and I obviously know I have an inferior grasp of feminist to women, me telling a woman what to think and do sounds and looks bad and, even though I’m a left-wing feminist myself, doesn’t look very feminist at all.

    That said, what I always want to say is that I have a problem with these Vagenda type feminists who do exactly what you’ve so eloquently put above – remove sexuality from feminism. To me it seems a class issue – they think girls who get their tits out are tacky and not helpful to the feminist cause. They’re the type of people who hate strippers but love burlesque. Quite often it’s not a ‘stop them now’, but ‘dear god, give them pity’ type response, as if these women aren’t in control of themselves, as if no one ever got their tits out because they wanted to (whether it be for fun or money).

    I’m behind the feminist cause and I’m often dismayed by things that my – both male and female – friends say that I consider sexist. But I’m worried that these oh-so-proper middle class prudes are going to hijack the debate and turn sex in to a taboo. And that’s why I’ve always found more in common with more radical wing of feminism. In fact, I can’t remember meeting a sub, particularly the ones who enjoy being called ‘slut’, ‘whore’ or worse, that wasn’t a feminist.

    The idea filth and feminism could be mutually exclusive is absurd.

    ps your ranty ones are good

    pps I’m drunk and rambling

    • Girl on the net says:

      You’re not rambling at all! Your comment is really interesting, because you say you don’t get involved in intersectionalist feminist debate, and yet you’re commenting here =) Intersectionalism is, as far as I know, the rather radical theory that people are discriminated against for different reasons and that this means certain feminists will have different experiences of discrimination depending on whether they are also, for instance, women of colour, or whether they have mental health issues, etc. I find it really hard to imagine how anyone would disagree with this in general: it’s clear that society has fucked-up views on a whole host of different things, and that some people will experience discrimination because of more than one thing. So, if ‘intersectionalist feminist’ is a thing, then I am one.

      But it sounds from what you’re saying that what worries you is being shut out of a debate because you are privileged in a way that other people aren’t, and so your opinions will be seen to be invalid. Here’s the thing: I don’t ever think someone’s opinions can be invalid, however, I think the idea of privilege is an incredibly useful one when it comes to assessing one’s own arguments and principles – I can intuit that a certain thing is wrong because it impacts on me in a certain way (say, discrimination when looking to hire women for management positions in a company). And I can go “OK, here’s how I think we should fix this.” Now, my opinion on that isn’t invalid, but if I haven’t also taken into account the ways that this problem has an even greater impact on, for instance, women with mobility problems, then my solution will necessarily not be fully informed.

      This is a bit long-winded, but basically it means – I don’t think that being privileged means you can’t join debates, movements, etc. What it does mean is that you have a responsibility to listen to other people’s perspectives, try to understand the broader picture (rather than just how a particular thing impacts you), and take that all into account. Hence why ‘mansplaining’ is a thing – it is frequently the case that men leap into discussions on feminism and gender discrimination and say “why don’t you just do X? It’s what I would do!” and women in the discussion roll their eyes, because they know that particular suggestion won’t work, or that it’s been tried and it’s failed, etc. ‘Mansplaining’ is the act of offering solutions and advice without previously examining your own privilege, and considering whether perhaps your experience in this instance isn’t going to be as helpful as you think it is.

      Sorry, that was incredibly rambly! Basically I don’t think you’re mansplaining, and I appreciate that it can be difficult to join in debates like this if you’re not 100% sure whether your views are – for want of a better word – wanted.

      I’m interested that you think it’s a class issue – I’ve never really experienced it as a class issue (i.e. people of different classes have different views on sex + feminism), but I feel like a lot of the problem comes down to a simplification of the debate, which isn’t helped at all by the mainstream media, who will often report “Feminist groups have called for X to happen”, which thus gives people the impression that “X happening” is something that all feminists want. It’s tough, because there are so many nuanced things, and it’s hard to get a message across that is: “OK, we don’t like this. But we’re not trying to ban it, we just want change within society that stops people seeing things this way.” It’s not as exciting a headline as “FEMINISTS CALL FOR BAN ON KNOCKERS”, which I suspect contributes hugely to the polarising of the debate.

      I’m a horribly wishy-washy arse most of the time, and I suspect I’d end up getting more attention if I could write a blog that said “All feminists of THIS TYPE are WRONG and AWFUL” but I’m not going to do that =) I’ve read very few feminist bloggers with whom I don’t agree on some things, disagree on others, and so I wouldn’t want to say any one – or a group – of them are completely wrong. You mention ‘Vagenda-style’ feminists. I struggle to class anything as ‘Vagenda’ simply because Vagenda is written by so many people (essentially anyone can pitch to them, which is why they have so many different articles). But I do see what you’re getting at. There’s a type of popular feminism that says ‘no to page 3’ and ‘ban the lad’s mags’, and I think it’s probably popular partly because it has one of these simple, media-friendly ‘ban things’ messages. Whereas to my mind the answer’s a bit more complicated.

      Christ, so sorry. I have rambled on there for ages. Thank you for saying nice things about my ranty blogs! And if you made it this far and are reading the very end of this comment, please do celebrate with a biscuit or something =)

      • Azkyroth says:

        …on the class thing, it just occurred to me that there’s a striking parallel between the minority(?) of self-labeled feminists who feel (to varying degrees) that some women’s sexual decision-making shouldn’t be respected, that they need other people or society to “protect” them by making sure they only make the “correct” decisions about their bodies and what they do with them (or at least making it an uphill battle to make and act on “incorrect” decisions), and the atheists (I’m, unfortunately, related to a couple of them) who figure that “people who aren’t as smart as they are” (IE, not-college-educated, working service industry or unskilled labor jobs, etc.) probably need religion to give them hope and meaning and keep them in line. I hadn’t quite thought to put the label of “classism” to it, but I’m feeling rather stupid for not having done so.

        • Girl on the net says:

          Ah, I have met some (many?) of these kind of atheists. I suspect I used to be one. I think with anything that requires examination and provokes debate there’ll always be something of this – I’d say it’s intellectual snobbery rather than specifically class, but I’m sure there’s an overlap. Also, I reckon I am definitely guilty of this sometimes – friends call me out on it occasionally and then I hang my head in shame. It’s crap though, you’re right.

      • hip_priest says:

        Hi, sorry, I did read that but only just had chance to reply.

        It’s not that I don’t think I’m welcome as such, it’s that I’m reticent to barge in on a debate when I’m white, straight male, you know? There’s nothing I can say that can really contribute to the debate, when I have no experience of sexism. I wouldn’t tell a person of colour how they should respond to racism and I’m not going to tell a woman how they should deal with sexism.

        But sometimes when I read an article by a self-proclaimed feminist, it strikes me as being the opposite, or coming from quite a conservative view point – like your example, prudes saying sex is bad. And as I’m of the quite radical left, I find myself much more aligned with the intersectionalists.

        I have a friend who considers herself a feminist and quite often uses words like ‘slut’ (not in a sexy way) – in fact, she says she’s left-wing and uses ‘chav’ and ‘council estate scum’, so she’s pretty misguided – but is it for me to say, ‘eh, I think you’re confused about what feminism is about’? I don’t think it is.

        (I don’t really know why I said I don’t get involved in the intersectionalist debate, because I don’t need to – I agree with 95% of what they say. but I think I commented here because I wanted to ramble on about all this shit, and I almost wanted to say it aloud, rather than just thinking it?)

        I really think some of it is a class thing, but again I’m looking at it from a Marxist standpoint. I don’t know if you saw that someone had daubed over page 3s by clothing the women and writing what jobs they’d be better off doing. of course, they were all be a director of a large company, be a doctor etc. i get the impression that some middle class women feel like the working classes are letting the side down, like you can’t be in Nuts and still be a feminist. But – as you point out – of course you can.

        I think once you start telling people what they can and can’t do in the name of liberation it ceases to be liberal or liberating at all.

        I’ll have a biscuit now

        x

  • Ayame says:

    Thank you for yet another awesome post. I have to agree with the people above, your ranty texts are what I love most. The stuff you write here is exactly what I wish I could put into words but I never seem to be able to.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thank you! And thanks to everyone who says they like the ranty ones. Occasionally I get emails from people saying “why are you being so ranty? You need to write more filth!” so it’s a tough balance to maintain =)

  • I found your blog last night while doing a bit of research for my next book. You’re a terrible woman. :P Instead of getting any writing done, I discovered it was 3 am and I’d been reading your archives for hours. I hope your book is just as entertaining. As to this particular post, I’m 100% in agreement. The patriarchy has been scared to death for thousands of years that women will take control of their own sexuality. It’s the last step before equality.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thank you so much! I’m flattered that you’ve been reading through my archives, and delighted that you like the blog!

  • audren says:

    Hi, I find this post extremely clear and to the point. It really speaks to how I (have managed to) see sex and feminism can intersect constructively. Would you allow me to translate/adapt* it for publication on my blog? (with backlinks and credits due, obviously) It also resonates with a long ramble I have read recently in an otherwise articulate sex/feminist blog, in which the author (a polyamorous girl) admits to not willing to identify herself as sex-positive anymore, given how much sex-normativity is repackaged as sex-positivity and shoved in our faces.

    (*I’ll have to adapt because most readers this side of the channel have no clue what the NUTS thing is about).

    BTW, it you want the illustration to the translated piece (every post of mine comes with an illustration) to be drawn from a photo of your choice, don’t hesitate to send me one. Just note that I have decided to have only SFW illustrations on the main blog. The sexy ones are on my tumblr.

    Bon dimanche

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hi audren – ooh, wow, that sounds really interesting! I have never been translated before! Happy for you to translate and publish on your blog if you add links/credit etc. Would love to know what others think. I tried to read that blog via Google Transate, but it’s a bit sledgehammer and I don’t think it works to translate stuff that’s nuanced like that article =( My crap schoolgirl French is no match for proper blogging!

      Feel free to translate mine if you like though – I’m afraid I’m useless with imagery, so feel free to illustrate however you like!

    • Azkyroth says:

      Your tumblr link is borked. :(

  • audren says:

    Thanks! I’ll let you know when I publish it.

    • audren says:

      The translated post will be online tomorrow morning at 6:30 GMT here: http://lesfessesdelacremiere.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/feminisme-sexe-positif-ou-pro-sexe-pas-sexe-obligatoire/

      I see that you alternate between “pro-sex” and “sex-positive”. It so happens that in French, we only have “pro-sexe”, and I think that partly explains how divisive the issue is here too. Sex-positivity carries much more meaning and nuance than what being “pro-sex” seems to mean literally (and ready to be pitted against “anti-sex”, when in reality, sex-positivity and sex-negativity are much more complex than being “fore” or “against” sex, obviously). So in the translation, I have used the unfrench “sexe-positif” form for each time you wrote “sex-positive”, and only kept “pro-sexe” for when you wrote “pro-sex”. I’d love the phrase “sexe-positif/ve” to gain traction in French soon.

      • audren says:

        By the way, have you read the opinion piece on the LTLM campaign by sex columnist Nichi Hodgson in The New Statesman ? It nicely echoes what you are saying.

        Let me quote a bit that caught my attention :

        Neither UK Feminista nor Object engage with these complexities anywhere in their public-facing campaign work. Instead, the message is quite simply “button up, or you’re being degraded.”

  • Robofish says:

    Another new reader here who’s just discovered your blog. Nice work, and this one here is particularly good. I agree almost entirely, and I wish more people could read this post and accept its message. I do want to reply to one point, though:

    “The No More Page 3 campaign has taken a lot of stick. But it has taken a lot of stick for a pretty good reason: it comes across as pretty anti-women. Like, really.”

    OK, I haven’t paid too close attention to what the NMP3 group have been saying, but I have to say I fully agree with their cause. I’m a straight guy who loves porn and sex-positive women, and I hope that doesn’t make me a hypocrite, but I don’t think it does. My problem with Page 3 isn’t ‘women showing off their tits’ – I’m all for that, it’s that it doesn’t belong in a newspaper. It seems rather sad that Sun readers probably see more pictures of women showing off their tits than women being in the news for any other reason. (Mind you, plenty of other newspapers do something similar, just a bit more subtly.)

    (For what it’s worth, I’ve much less of a problem with lads’ mags – they’ve always been clear about what they are and who they were for. Won’t miss them myself, but don’t see their loss as any great victory either.)

    Someone above suggests feminist opposition to the likes of Page 3 and lads’ mags comes out of classism – perhaps there is something to that, but it would be unfair and wrong to reduce their arguments that way. For one thing, sex workers and sexual exhibitionism exist in all walks of life, as do the people who purchase them, and the people who are opposed to them tend to be opposed to them in all situations. I don’t agree with the argument that using female sexuality to make money is inherently wrong, but it should be engaged with on its own terms rather than being mischaracterised as something else.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ah, the ‘it doesn’t belong in a newspaper’ thing is probably the closest I get to agreeing – I think everything needs to be looked at in context and to be honest, the way that Page 3 is presented, and the place it is presented, does seem utterly incongruous. Likewise if they printed a dick on page 3 it would be dodgy. I think we pretty much agree on this – my main issue with the P3 campaign is that it is often presented as a blanket ‘girls getting their tits out for money is wrong’, rather than the specific point about the context of a ‘family’ newspaper.

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